INTERVIEWWatery trip

Sheikh Hasina did not bother with protocol when Mamata won the elections -- she picked up the phone and congratulated her; Mamata should have gone to Dhaka, says a top Bangladesh expert in India.
Published : 12 Sept 2011, 06:03 AM
Updated : 12 Sept 2011, 06:03 AM
Sreeradha Datta is one of India's foremost Bangladesh specialists. Dr Datta heads Calcutta's Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies (MAKAIAS). Earlier she was with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in New Delhi.
S. N. M. Abdi
, a Contributing Editor in India, chatted with Datta soon after Manmohan Singh flew back to India from Dhaka. Excerpts:
Q: So how disappointed are you by the outcome of Dr Singh's Bangladesh visit?
A: Rather disappointed. And just imagine how disappointed Bangladesh is. Sheikh Hasina has been very courageous and helpful to India. So there were very high expectations in Bangladesh after she visited India in January 2010. Dhaka expected India to reciprocate in a big way. But their hopes were shattered at the proverbial eleventh hour.
Q: On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate the success of the summit?
A: About 5.
Q: And if the Teesta agreement had been signed?
A: 8 plus if the water deal had been pulled off.
Q: How would you sum up what went wrong with Dr Singh's much-hyped trip?
A: Water is a top priority and a very emotive and touchy subject in Bangladesh. Water can make or break governments. Even if we didn't agree on many issues but had clinched a deal on water, public opinion in Bangladesh would have been with India. However the framework agreement on cooperation for development has the potential for enormous economic gains by both the countries and the region.
The visit floundered because it revolved around the Teesta water-sharing agreement. A summit should have delivered much more. Why did we have to send our Prime Minister? There are plenty of high level visits anyway.
Q: What, in your opinion, should Mamata Banerjee have done to make her point instead of outright refusing to accompany the PM?
A: I don't see any reason for Mamata Banerjee not going to Bangladesh with the PM. Even if she had problems with the Teesta agreement - and she actually has some valid reasons - it was not quite right to miss the trip. Along with Dr Singh she also disappointed Hasina. Bangladesh has a very close relationship with West Bengal. And any West Bengal chief minister would like to nurture it. Given the fact that Hasina and Mamata are so close -- Hasina did not bother with protocol when Mamata won the elections; she picked up the phone and congratulated her -- Mamata should have gone to Dhaka.
Mamata should have gone to Dhaka even if the Teesta deal was not being signed because of her valid objections. Her mere presence would have acted like a balm on raw nerves. The episode left a bitter taste in the mouth.
Q: Some people are blaming the Prime Minister's Office for the fiasco. So you think the Foreign Office deals better with complex bilateral issues than the PMO?
A: I would think so. The Foreign Office has a far better understanding of complex bilateral issues which it is dealing with all the time.
Q: Foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai, a career diplomat, says that he and Jyoti Basu even went on boat-rides before the 1996 Ganges treaty was signed. And Deb Mukharji, then High Commissioner in Dhaka, says that Basu was privy to every little detail and even visited Bangladesh before the
Ganges pact was inked.
A: My information is that Jyoti Basu pushed for the treaty. He was more than supportive. But in 2011 New Delhi was deciding and expected Mamata to toe the line. Presumption led to disaster.
Q: Apparently, National Security Asvisor Shivshankar Menon, who was in touch with Mamata on behalf of Dr Singh, had aborted Hillary Clinton's desire to visit Calcutta soon after the Trinamool Congress captured power in West Bengal and sent the US Secretary of State to Chennai instead. And Mamata hasn't forgiven Menon ever since.
A: [Silence] I know nothing about it.
Q: What is the way forward after such a disappointing visit?
A: India and Bangladesh must work together to clinch agreements in areas which are their priority concerns. Water is obviously one of them. India was looking forward to signing connectivity and extradition agreements which proved elusive.
The only positive outcome of the summit was steps towards the resolution of border issues which includes demarcation of the contentious 6.1 km boundary and swapping enclaves and territories illegally occupied by India and Bangladesh for decades.
Bangladesh has been addressing our security concerns since Awami League government returned to power. In January 2010, India and Bangladesh signed three security-related agreements. But an extradition treaty was missing. Given the close cooperation between Delhi and Dhaka, everyone hoped that an extradition treaty would also be signed.
Q: So was it tit for tat? Did Bangladesh stall transit and extradition treaties because India held back the water deal?
A: I don't think it's tit for tat! The two governments are not so immature that they would be vindictive. But I do think that Hasina's hands were tied because she needed to show her people what India had given her before she could concede what India wanted.
To be fair to Bangladesh, it has already allowed India the use of Ashuganj port to bring large containers from Calcutta port for despatch to Palatan on Tripura where a power plant is being built. India is enjoying the transit facility for over a year now. It is of course a specific, one-time concession for over dimensional cargoes vital for the Palatan power station.
There is a 1000-1500 megawatt gap in Bangladesh's power requirement. And one of the objectives of the Palatan plant is to export power to Bangladesh.
Q: Bangladesh has put Anup Chetia's extradition on hold.
A: Getting Chetia on a platter will not solve all the problems. But it would be a hugely symbolic gesture which has obviously got stalled thanks to the aborted Teesta deal.
Maybe between friends you really don't need an extradition treaty. Friends can quietly hand over each other's fugitives! Bangladesh's good intentions are not hidden from India.
Q: It is being suggested that Dr Singh should appoint a political heavyweight to liaise between Mamata and Bangladesh so that a mutually acceptable Teesta agreement is arrived at in three months.
A: It's a good idea. It will send the right signal at a time when Bangladesh needs to be placated. A political figure as an interlocutor will go down well with Bangladesh. A politician will probably ease and iron out differences more deftly than a bureaucrat.
Q: India is being increasingly seen in Bangladesh as a regional super power which doesn't keep its word. The aborted Teesta treaty is the latest in a series of let-downs. Even the cyclone shelters and 500,000 tonnes of rice promised after Cyclone Sidr remained a mirage for four years.
A: India seems to have a problem implementing its promises. Right now India should stop giving excuses and ensure that Bangladesh gets everything it has been promised.
Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher